The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

It says a lot about America that John McCain was never elected president.  It says even more that, in retrospect, we sort of wish he had been.

Indeed, all the way back in 2001, during an interview with Charlie Rose (ahem), Bill Maher cited McCain—recently defeated in the GOP primaries by George W. Bush—as among his favorite Republican politicians.  “He’s everyone’s favorite,” said Rose, to which Maher dismissively retorted, “Then why doesn’t he win?”

It’s a damn good question, and a useful lens through which to view our entire political system.  As McCain clings ever-more-precariously to life—having spent the last 10 months ravaged by glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer—we might reflect on the strange way that our most accomplished and admired public officials tend not to rise all the way to the Oval Office—and why a great many more never bother to run in the first place.

On paper, McCain would seem exactly the sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind as a national leader:  A scrappy rebel from a distinguished family who proves his mettle on the battlefield, then parlays that fame into a steady career in public service.  (He was first elected to Congress in 1982 and has never held another job.)

While hardly a first-class intellect—he famously graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis—McCain’s grit and endurance through five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation in a Vietnamese prison forever burnished his reputation as among the most indefatigable men in American life—someone who would speak truth to bullshit and hold no loyalties except to his own conscience.  Having cheated death multiple times, here was a man with precious little to fear and even less to lose.

Against this noble backdrop, it would be the understatement of the year to say that, as a two-time presidential candidate, John McCain was a complicated and contradictory figure—perhaps even a tragic one.  In 2000, he established his political persona as a crusty, “straight-talking” “maverick,” only to be felled in South Carolina by a racist Bush-sanctioned robocall operation that McCain was too gentlemanly to condemn.  (The robocalls implied, among other things, that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an out-of-wedlock “love child.”)

Eight years later, having learned a thing or three about brass-knuckles campaigning, McCain scraped and clawed his way to the Republican nomination—besting no fewer than 11 competitors—only to throw it all away with the single most irresponsible decision of his life:  His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

With nearly a decade of hindsight, the science is in that choosing Palin—a world-class ignoramus and America’s gateway drug to Donald Trump—constituted the selling of McCain’s soul for the sake of political expediency.  Rather than running with his good friend (and non-Republican) Joe Lieberman and losing honorably, he opted to follow his advisers’ reckless gamble and win dishonorably.  That he managed to lose anyway—the final, unalterable proof that the universe has a sense of humor—was the perfect denouement to this most Sisyphean of presidential odysseys.  He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

The truth is that McCain wouldn’t have won the 2008 election no matter what he did, and this had very little to do with him.  After eight years of George W. Bush—a member of McCain’s party, with approval ratings below 30 percent in his final months—the thrust of history was simply too strong for anyone but a Democrat to prevail that November.  (Since 1948, only once has the same party won three presidential elections in a row.)

If McCain was ever going to become president, it would’ve been in 2000.  Pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and post-Bill Clinton, a colorful, self-righteous veteran could’ve wiped the floor with a stiff, boring policy wonk like Al Gore.

Why didn’t he get that chance?  The official explanation (as mentioned) is the reprehensible smear campaign Team Bush unloaded in the South Carolina primary.  However, the more complete answer is that Republican primary voters throughout the country simply didn’t view McCain as one of their own.  Compared to Bush—a born-again Christian with an unambiguously conservative record—McCain was a quasi-liberal apostate who called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” and seemed to hold a large chunk of the GOP base in bemused contempt.

McCain’s problem, in other words, was the primary system itself, in which only the most extreme and partisan among us actually participate, thereby disadvantaging candidates who—whether through their ideas or their character—might appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse audience later on.  Recent casualties of this trend include the likes of John Kasich and John Huntsman on the right to John Edwards and (arguably) Bernie Sanders on the left.

On the other hand, sometimes primary voters will do precisely the opposite by selecting nominees whom they perceive to be the most “electable”—a strategy that, in recent decades, has produced an almost perfect record of failure, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton.

By being his best self in 2000 and his worst self in 2008, McCain managed to fall into both traps and end up nowhere.  Indeed, he may well have been a victim of bad timing more than anything else—as was, say, Chris Christie by not running in 2012 or Hillary Clinton by not running in 2004.

Then again, all of history is based on contingencies, and it is the job of the shrewd politician to calibrate his strengths to the tenor of the moment without sacrificing his core identity.  However appealing he may be in a vacuum, he must be the right man at the right time—the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common.

As Brian Wilson would say, maybe John McCain just wasn’t made for these times.  Maybe he wasn’t elected president because America didn’t want him to be president.  Maybe his purpose in life was to be exactly what he was:  A fiery renegade senator who drove everybody a little crazy and loved every minute of it.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been any good as commander-in-chief anyhow—too impulsive, too hawkish—and maybe we’re better off not knowing for sure.

Will someone of McCain’s ilk ever rise to the nation’s highest office in the future?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

What Might Have Been

During the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “All year, I’ve told people who asked about an alternate history for 2016: ‘This IS the alternate history.’”

Yes, indeed.  And as this bizarro fever dream lurches toward its conclusion—likely in the form of a smashing Clinton victory—it’s hard not to fantasize about what might have been.  To mentally play out the 2016 election in a plane of reality devoid of Clinton and/or Trump.

To be sure, Americans have wistfully indulged in “What if?” scenarios for pretty much every election in history—if not every major news event, period—understanding, as we do, that one tiny hiccup in the space-time continuum can have a transformative effect on the course of human events.  Since reality itself is unknowable until it becomes known—and sometimes not even then—alternate reality has an otherworldly allure tailor-made for those who’ve had it up to here with the truth and would rather reside in the warm, reassuring embrace of pure fiction.

In 2016, that describes just about everybody, doesn’t it?

Let us begin, then, with Bernie Sanders and his vision for a more economically egalitarian way of life.  Had he somehow prevailed in the Democratic primaries—say, by attracting more African-American voters or by more aggressively attacking Hillary’s most vulnerable policy positions—would his general election campaign against Trump have been measurably different from Clinton’s?

Damn straight, it would.  For all the substantive agreement between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders would’ve presented as an entirely different species of opponent for his Republican counterpart—a simpler target in some ways, while a considerably more vexing one in others.

Most conspicuously, perhaps—particularly in light of recent events—Trump could not credibly have attacked Sanders on issues of character.  Unlike Hillary, Bernie hasn’t a whiff of scandal or corruption about him; he has rarely, if ever, altered his views for political expedience; he has not engaged in “pay-to-play” shenanigans with lobbyists or big banks; and he has not, in any case, been a party to the so-called “rigged” system that both he and Trump have vowed to fix.

As well, for all his theatricality in front of a crowd, Sanders is an utterly decent and morally serious person who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a dirty primary fight against Hillary and presumably would’ve tried to comport himself similarly against Trump.  What’s more, even if he had chastised Trump for all the terrible things he’s said over the years—as he has been wont to do as Hillary’s loyal surrogate—what exactly would Trump have lobbed back in response?  We all know how much the Donald depends on projection to get his message across, but would anyone really have bought into the idea (if Trump floated it) that Bernie Sanders is a “liar” and a “bigot,” or that he has “tremendous hate in [his] heart”?

In other words, Trump’s attacks on Bernie would’ve come from an entirely different playbook from the ones he’s using on Hillary, and our imagination can only get us so far in picturing just how that might’ve panned out.  In all likelihood, as a 25-year far-left member of Congress, Sanders would’ve been painted as a feckless insider and/or an extremist loony toon—a line of attack that would surely be more effective from a messenger who is not, himself, a raging, unprincipled nut job.

In short:  If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Trump would’ve found a way to disqualify himself regardless of his Democratic opponent.  He can’t help it:  He is just too good at being bad.

But what if we removed Trump from the equation altogether?  What if Republican primary voters hadn’t gone totally insane last spring and, instead, nominated a comparatively normal (i.e. electable) candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?

In other words, what if this election made any sense at all?

For the answer to that, we would do well to consult history, beginning with this rather remarkable piece of data:  Since 1945, 11 different men have been elected commander-in-chief, and of those 11, only one was picked to succeed a member of his own political party.  Except for 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush took over for Republican Ronald Reagan, every presidential transition since the end of World War II that was not triggered by the president’s death or resignation involved a switch from a Democrat to a Republican, or vice versa.

If there is a central fact about the American electorate, it’s the desire to throw the bums out as soon as their natural term is up.  Although we have lately made a habit of re-electing the incumbent—itself something of a historical anomaly—we have shown an innate aversion to having a single party control the executive branch for more than eight years at a time—an inclination that explains why virtually every successful candidate in modern history has run on a platform of “change.”

Which is all to say that a Republican should’ve been elected president in 2016—or, barring that, that the race should’ve at least been quite close.  With 26 days until the polls close (thanks to early voting, many have already opened), it appears that neither of those things will happen, and the explanation for this really can be boiled down to two words:  Donald Trump.

In a Trump-less universe, could Rubio or Bush—or John Kasich or Chris Christie—have defeated Clinton?  Sure, why not?  All the anti-establishment momentum would’ve been in his favor, Clinton’s own shortcomings would’ve remained glaringly evident to all, and—most obviously—none of those other candidates (except perhaps Christie) would’ve been so completely crushed by the weight of his own ego.

As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton is hardly an infallible candidate.  For all her knowledge and experience, she can always be relied upon to get in her own proverbial way by being needlessly secretive, paranoid and/or outright dishonest.  It was her unbelievable good fortune to be pitted against the most cartoonishly unqualified opponent on planet Earth, and the fact that this election wasn’t over months ago is a testament to how much trouble she might’ve found herself in against a Republican foe who actually took this job seriously and wasn’t busy fighting off multiple accusations of sexual assault.

So if we are to write an alternate history of the 2016 campaign—or, as Jeff Greenfield would have it, the non-alternate history—we would require either a version of Donald Trump that was everything the current version is not, or a Republican electorate with the basic common sense not to tether itself to an unelectable thug.

Like I said:  Fantasy.

The GOP Reaps What It Sows

Super Tuesday saw a veritable fruit salad of disingenuous comments from all parties involved—from Marco Rubio’s declaration of victory after losing 11 of 12 states to Donald Trump’s claim of being a “uniter” at the very moment when several leading members of his party announced they would rather suck on an exhaust pipe than allow Trump to become the face of the GOP.

However, if there was one assertion that rose above all the others for its sheer, jaw-dropping chutzpah, it was the following reaction to Trump’s continued success from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan:

If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games.  They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.  This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.  We appeal to their highest ideals.  This is the party of Lincoln.  We believe all people are equal in the eyes of God and our government.  This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.

Between that statement and Chris Christie’s facial expressions during Trump’s victory speech, I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard following a presidential primary night.

Specifically, Ryan was addressing Trump’s initial reluctance to bat away the endorsement of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, although (let’s face it) he could’ve been referring to pretty much anything Trump has said or done over the last eight months.

While Ryan deserves heaping praise for taking such a clear, principled stand against everything Donald Trump represents, his characterization of the party he leads is so comically lacking in self-awareness that Trump himself could not have put it any better.

The Republican Party doesn’t prey on people’s prejudices?  It believes all people are created equal?  Speaker, please.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could’ve sworn the GOP had built its entire brand—say, over the last three or four decades—on such “high ideals” as denying marriage rights to same-sex couples because God intoned that gays are no different from murderers and child molesters.  I do believe it was Republican leaders who defended the “liberty” of business owners to deny service to gay customers for the exact same reason.

Whenever an unarmed black teenager is senselessly murdered by a white police officer, Republicans are always the first to assume the kid must’ve done something to deserve it.  When it comes to elections, Republican officials never hesitate to make it as difficult as possible for African-Americans and Hispanics to be able to cast a vote.

Quick as GOP leaders are to evoke “religious liberty” as a cornerstone of American democracy, they somehow always find a loophole for anyone wearing a turban, hijab or some other manner of foreign-looking funny hat.  (Rarely, of course, do most Republicans take the time to understand which funny hat corresponds to which foreign-looking religion.)

Perhaps you saw the exit poll showing that 60 percent of Republican voters agree with Trump’s plan to prevent Muslims from entering the United States on the basis of their religion.  Even assuming that every single Trump voter is included in that 60 percent, we are still left with 40-50 percent of non-Trump GOP voters who apparently think that all Muslims are terrorists.  Or, at minimum, that Muslims are so inherently suspect that it’s worth discriminating against all of them on a federal level.  You know, just in case.

This is the party Paul Ryan would have as a paragon of liberty, equality and justice:  A party distrustful of Muslims, contemptuous of gays and utterly oblivious to the plight of Hispanics and blacks.  If Ryan is serious that any prospective nominee “must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” they would need to begin with the Republican Party itself.

Ryan calls it “the party of Lincoln.”  If I may rework a line from a classic Woody Allen movie:  If Lincoln came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.

Out of Iowa

In his inaugural State of the Commonwealth address last week, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker said he could sum up his first year in office in one phrase:  “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised.”

It’s the sort of laconic, practical wisdom for which Baker has become known and liked around these parts.  (He is currently the most popular governor in the country, despite being a Republican in a sea of liberalism.)  Specifically, Baker was referring to such surprises as a massive budget deficit and the most ridiculous winter in the history of Boston.

In fact, at this moment, “Don’t be surprised when you get surprised” is possibly the most valuable advice any of us could ask for.

Why?  Because Monday is the Iowa Caucus, that’s why.

Yup.  After years of anticipation (or so it feels), we have finally made it to the official opening bell of the 2016 presidential campaign.  For all the pontificating that has occurred throughout the past year, Monday’s gathering in the Hawkeye State will be the first time actual humans cast actual votes for actual candidates.

Notwithstanding all the imperfections inherent in the caucus system—really, the whole process is nothing but imperfections—on Tuesday morning, we will have a much clearer sense of where the race stands than we do now.  And if there is one thing I can impart by way of context, it is not to be surprised when you get surprised.  Something weird is going to happen, and you might as well be prepared for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know what that surprise will be.  I haven’t the slightest idea who’s going to win the Iowa Caucus—or place second or third—nor do I know how those results will affect the 49 primaries and caucuses to come.

That’s not the point.  The point is:  Nobody else knows, either.

Hundreds—if not thousands—of polls have been conducted by dozens of organizations in the past year regarding the 2016 election, but the truth is that not a single person (with the possible exception of Nate Silver) can make a head or tail of what they mean.  Some pundits are dignified enough to admit it.  Most are not.

To be honest, I was all set to go into depth about the futility of presidential opinion polls, but New York Times columnist Frank Bruni beat me to the punch.  “We’re leaning harder than ever on polling precisely when that makes the least sense,” Bruni wrote last Sunday.  “We’re wallowing in polls even as they come to wildly different conclusions that should give us serious pause.”

Bruni’s best example of this (mine, too) is the fact that last week—on the exact same day—two separate surveys were released in New Hampshire showing a 3-point margin between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the first case, and a 27-point margin in the second.

Yup:  Same state, same week, same candidates, 24-point difference.

In an ideal world, that would be all we need to know about the uselessness of opinion-mongering as a predictor of who’s going to be the next president.  For Pete’s sake, if two reputable organizations can disagree that much about something that’s supposed to be so scientific, on what basis can we trust any statistic purporting to represent the views of the voting public?

The bottom line—as statisticians will tell you—is that the results of any single poll don’t mean a damn thing.  When it comes to elections, all that really matters is when a whole bunch of polls manage to agree with each other.  If one result says Sanders leads by 3 while another says he leads by 27, all we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure.  But if two—or three or four—organizations say Sanders leads by 3, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, quite often we have gotten relative consistency among the many outfits measuring the presidential race.  Indeed, the reason we all think Donald Trump truly is the GOP frontrunner is that he has placed first in just about every survey that has been taken in the past six months.  (All except four, to be precise.)  That—for better or worse—is what you call a pattern.

But patterns can be deceiving.  Just because you win the first 18 games of the season doesn’t mean you’ll win the Super Bowl, and a presidential candidate who spends an eternity as the “favorite” doesn’t necessarily win the first primary.

Surely, the 2008 election proved this once and for all.  Hillary Clinton—the Trump in that contest, as it were—spent the entirety of 2007 as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, then suddenly placed third in the Iowa Caucus, behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards.  With that, the narrative changed overnight from “Hillary has it all wrapped up” to “Obama is going all the way.”

Over the next few days, polls and pundits predicted Obama would not only prevail in the New Hampshire primary, but that it would be a rout—possibly a double-digit victory for the newbie from the South Side.

And what actually happened?  You guessed it:  Clinton won the Granite State by 2.6 points.

As a consequence of the Iowa-New Hampshire split, the nomination fight continued, state by state, until the bitter end.  Clinton did not formally concede until June 7—four days after the final votes had been cast.  By then, the entire electorate had been put through the proverbial wringer, fostering many years of bitterness between operatives of the two campaigns.

Could something like that happen in 2016?  You bet your sweet bippy it could—possibly in both parties, and definitely in the 12-person GOP.  Ask yourself:  Do Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie strike you as the sort of men who would go gently into that good night?  Does Bernie Sanders?  We know Clinton’s not going anywhere until the last dog dies, so why should we expect either of these contests to wrap up with all deliberate speed?  What, may I ask, is the hurry?

The final presidential primary is June 14.  I would be very surprised if we knew both parties’ nominees before then.  Indeed, I don’t see why the Republican race shouldn’t go all the way to the party convention in July (on the 40th anniversary of the last time such a thing occurred).

Then again, in a year in which we have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps a swift and clean primary season would be the most unexpected outcome of all.  Maybe the whole thing will be settled by Tuesday morning, leaving us to enjoy the next six months in peace.

That would certainly be a surprise.  Considering how much fun we’ve had so far, it would not necessarily be a welcome one.

All Votes Matter

Why are Republicans so scared of democracy?  Why are they so hostile toward voting?

In most of his campaign speeches this year, Bernie Sanders has made the point that, in general, voter turnout is directly correlated to Democrats winning elections.  That is, when the maximal number of people cast ballots in a given year, Democratic candidates tend to do well, while Republicans fare better when turnout is relatively low.

While evidence for this is suggestive but not conclusive, the idea is that young people and poor people are the groups who vote the least, and both demographics tend to support liberal candidates.  Thus, if Democrats could simply inspire those bums to get off the couch on the first Tuesday of every November, the party would eke out solid victories from coast to coast, and probably never lose a presidential election again.

Certainly, there are counterarguments to this theory, beginning with the fact that less-dependable voters are also less ideological, and thus more susceptible to change their minds from year to year.

Then again, we don’t really need statistical proof that high turnout favors Democrats and disadvantages Republicans.  All we need to do is observe how the two parties behave whenever the issue of voting rights comes up.

At every juncture, Democrats do all they can to expand the voter pool and erase whatever barriers remain for citizens who are already eligible to vote.  Republicans, meanwhile, take the opposite approach, digging whatever sand traps they can to make the act of voting as difficult and unpleasant as possible.

Do I exaggerate?

Year after year, it is Republicans—and only Republicans—who advocate “voter ID” laws, which would necessarily disenfranchise a significant chunk of eligible American voters who, without having broken any laws, happen not to possess the sorts of identification such laws would require.  (In big cities, for instance, many residents don’t own a driver’s license because they have no need for a car.)

In Virginia in 2008, it was Republicans who sent flyers to Democratic neighborhoods telling them to vote on the wrong day.  In 2012, five states—four of which had Republican governors—cut back on early voting, which allows those who can’t get out of work on Election Day to cast a ballot on a day that they can.  (“Too busy” is the number one reason registered voters don’t make it to the polls.)  During the Maryland gubernatorial race in 2010, a Republican consultant pulled back whatever was left of the curtain by saying, “the first and most desired outcome is voter suppression,” specifically by ensuring that “African-American voters stay home.”

Shenanigans like these—anecdotal that they are—help to erase any notion that Republicans’ real target is so-called “voter fraud”—the act of casting a ballot under false pretenses.  While it sounds reasonable to want to prevent that sort of thing, it becomes slightly less so when you learn that, according to one study, there has been a grand total of 31 instances of voter fraud in the United States since 2000—a period of time that saw roughly one billion ballots cast.

Percentage-wise, the likelihood of voter fraud affecting the outcome of an election is roughly equivalent to that of being eaten by a shark in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

No, the purpose of voter ID laws is exactly what it looks like:  To keep liberals away from the ballot box.

This being the case, we are now in the nascent stages of a major fight on this issue between representatives of our two political parties.  The fight concerns a simple but profound question:  Should all Americans be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18?

Presently, if you want to participate in the democratic process, the onus is on you to march down to City Hall and register to vote.  You must do this upon reaching the age of majority and any time you move to a different address.  God forbid you forget, don’t have time, don’t care or don’t get your application processed on time.

Now there is talk of streamlining the registration process by reversing it.  Under the new proposal—bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress—you would be automatically added to the voter rolls unless you specifically opt out.

What a splendid idea.  Indeed, it would be the most pro-voter federal policy shift since the Nineteenth Amendment, and we have the research to prove it.

Consider organ donation.  In many countries, you must give your affirmative consent to become an organ donor—typically upon renewing your driver’s license—while in others, you are made a potential donor automatically unless you actively refuse.  The outcome of these policies is striking:  In “opt-in” Germany, for instance, only 12 percent of citizens are organ donors.  Meanwhile, in “opt-out” Austria right next door, the number is 99.98 percent.

In general, you can use statistics to reach any conclusion you want, but this case seems pretty cut and dry.

Further, there is little reason to expect that automatic voter registration wouldn’t yield similar results:  At the proverbial end of the day, how many Americans are so hostile toward the democratic process that they would actively deny themselves the mere opportunity to cast a vote?  So long as they are afforded that right, what exactly is the problem?

The effect of such a system could be transformative.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now more than 70 million Americans who are eligible to vote but haven’t even bothered to register.  That’s 70 million potential ballots that are just floating around in the ether—legitimate would-be votes with the potential to swing every race in this country.

To be sure, just because those 70 million people would suddenly become registered does not mean they would actually exercise their newly-acquired right.  Some people do not become voters for entirely deliberate reasons, and there are plenty of Americans whose grasp of the issues is such that their abstention from the process is probably for the best.  (Then again, we could say the same for many who do vote, but that’s another story.)

All things considered, automatic voter registration seems like a slam dunk—one of those simple, obvious ideas we’re embarrassed not to have thought up sooner.  Who could possibly object?

Chris Christie, for one.  Earlier this month, the New Jersey legislature passed the “Democracy Act,” which, in addition to automatic registration, would have allowed residents to register online and provided two weeks of early voting every election cycle.  However, as governor, Christie vetoed the legislation, calling it “thinly-veiled political gamesmanship” and arguing that such reforms would lead to increases in—you guessed it!—voter fraud.

We’ve already established how the latter claim is utter nonsense, but what about the former?  Are Democratic Party initiatives like early voting and automatic registration mere ploys to run up the score in favor of America’s left wing?

Sure they are.  If Democrats know—or at least assume—that high voter turnout redounds to their benefit, any maneuver to jack up turnout is axiomatically a political act.

But that’s not the point.  Everything is a political act.  The question is whether this particular political act is consistent with basic American principles and traditions.  If so, the politics behind it become irrelevant.

Call me crazy, but I would estimate that ensuring equal protection under the law is a more worthy American tradition than keeping poor people and minorities from participating in the democratic process.

Further, this shouldn’t be an especially difficult feat to pull off.  Over the past 150 years, we have amended our Constitution to clarify that the right of adult citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, sex, age and—with the Voting Rights Act—race again.

Having accomplished all of that—however haltingly—you’d think denying the vote on account of laziness and/or having a busy schedule would be a breeze to overcome, even for the Congress we’re stuck with today.

As Churchill is alleged to have said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”

A Serious Man

If there is any single factor to explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders, it would probably be his utter lack of affect.

Here is a man, after all, who opened his official campaign announcement by saying, “I’m happy to take a few questions, but we don’t have an endless amount of time.”

A man who, for some reason, doesn’t ever seem in possession of a comb, or a campaign staffer who could spot him one.  (A trait he weirdly shares with the incorrigible mayor of London, Boris Johnson.)

A man who has apparently held the same core political views his entire adult life, and espouses them in the same manner whether he’s speaking to one person or to a crowd of thousands, and without any evident regard for how many—or how few—of his fellow citizens agree with him.

In short, Bernie Sanders is the real thing:  A presidential candidate who can be taken at face value, and whose entire political fortunes rest on the strength or weakness of his ideas.

He is an entirely substance-based candidate, containing nary a whiff of hot air.  In the present climate, how very fortunate we are to have him.

To be sure, we find candidates like this every election cycle—men we lionize for their “authenticity” and “straight talk.”

But Sanders’ authenticity exists on a level all its own, and his presence in the race demonstrates just how false the other would-be straight-shooters actually are.

Let us begin (as we must) with Donald Trump, the runaway favorite among likely GOP voters.  By now, it is generally agreed—by Republicans and the media alike—that the appeal of Trump, such as it is, owes to his penchant for saying exactly what he thinks in the bluntest way possible, without any filter or sense of political correctness.  In other words, people admire him for telling it like it is.

Horse feathers.  People admire Trump because he says racist, inflammatory things about immigrants and allows white people to think of themselves as victims.  Period.

His fan base cannot claim to care primarily about “issues” or “the truth,” since Trump has barely said a word about any issue, and whenever he has, his claims have shown to be greatly exaggerated, if not outright false.

If Trump proves anything, it’s that speaking directly from the gut is not an inherently welcome tack after all.  Sometimes it just means you’re an intemperate jerk, and I’m not sure how helpful that would be for someone with access to the nuclear codes.

Then there’s Chris Christie, who was the GOP’s reigning straight talker before Trump parachuted into the tent.  While not quite as crude or shameless, Christie’s image as an honest messenger of hard truths is exactly that:  An image.

Rather than speaking plainly for its own sake, Christie is forever in pursuit of reminding us how politically heroic he is behaving whenever he finds himself in some scuffle or other within New Jersey politics.  Whatever the issue, he cannot help making it about him rather than the principles involved.  He always frames the debate as “me vs. them,” rather than right vs. wrong.

In this way, Christie shares with Trump that most obnoxious, yet alluring, strategy of reducing everything to personalities.  Listen to both men long enough, and you’ll notice how often both resort to ad hominem—attacking the person instead of the idea.

(Recall the moment during “Bridgegate,” for instance, when Christie defended himself against former ally and schoolmate David Wildstein by saying, “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school.  You know, I was the class president and athlete.  I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”)

Compared to all this childishness, Bernie Sanders’ candor is a difference of kind, not degree.

Like Christie, et al, Sanders has rooted his candidacy in telling difficult truths that voters might not want to hear—namely, that the whole American economy is rigged to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.  Unlike those clowns, Sanders affects no particular ego in doing so.  Yes, he believes he’s right and believes it strongly, but you get no sense that his views are shaped or clouded by his ambition for high office, or by any outsized sense of his own awesomeness.

Indeed, if being elected president were all he was interested in, he wouldn’t dare ruffle the feathers of America’s ruling class, whom he may well need to adequately fund his campaign, and whose lack of support may well make his nomination impossible.

By ruffling away, Sanders is challenging the theory that money controls elections more than people.  That if your campaign is not supported by a super PAC and/or a few well-placed billionaires, then you don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning.  Should Sanders manage to secure the nomination in the teeth of such institutional hurdles, it would be a glorious day for democracy.

In the meantime, we would do well to ponder a related, and no less crucial, query:  Is America ready to elect a serious person for president?

When I say “serious,” I mean it in both senses of the word:  Serious in intent, but also in disposition.

By all means, Barack Obama was a serious candidate in 2008, insomuch as he ran on a credible platform of changing the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and reversing several major Bush administration policies.

At the same time, Obama was utterly game to mix it up on late night TV—appearing on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live at key moments—and to indulge, however reluctantly, the media’s inevitable excesses all through his presidency.  He has always been willing to bask in his status as a cultural icon, and to milk his personal popularity for all it’s worth.  And he ain’t half-bad at doing it.

Sanders, meanwhile—with his laser-like focus on the plight of the working class—imparts very little in the way of a sense of humor.  While not entirely without wit or an engaging speaking style, Sanders doesn’t seem to care about the personality aspect of the campaigning process—what Obama has long referred to as “silly season.”

Case in point:  Sanders was asked recently in an interview, “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?”  His response:  “I don’t mean to be rude here.  I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK?  Do you have serious questions?”

In fact, the interviewer was raising the perfectly legitimate concern that female candidates are scrutinized for their looks in a way that male candidates are not—a point Sanders later conceded and called “absolutely wrong.”  But Sanders’ initial reaction to the question stands as an instructive window into his psyche.

Above all, it makes absolutely clear that he has no patience for side issues.  He entered this race because he wants to close the gap between America’s ruling rich and powerless poor, and he simply doesn’t have time for the media’s asinine detours into frivolous nonsense.

The real question is:  Are the rest of us grown up enough to follow his lead?

Every time a new election rolls around, we implore our candidates to be frank with us about everything that’s wrong with our country and what it’ll take to fix it.  “Give it to me straight, senator.”

But then, when we actually get those candidates, we panic and run away in horror—right into the arms of someone with a big, glittering smile and the assurance that everything is just fine.

In truth, as voters we are attracted to characters, not ideas.  In this way, finding a president is a bit like finding a lover:  We have all these abstract notions of what our perfect match will look like, but in the end we fall for an individual—someone who, more often than not, bares little resemblance to what we thought we were looking for in the first place.

For Democrats this year, Bernie Sanders would seem to be the best of both worlds:  He subscribes to Democratic Party orthodoxy on virtually (if not literally) every issue and he is willing to defend those principles without equivocation or fear.

The only concern, then, is this nebulous concept we call “electability.”

As Democratic voters would have it, Sanders represents everything they’d ever want in a nominee—not least a president—except they’re just not sure he’d be able to sell himself to enough non-Democrats to carry the election next November.

It makes sense enough, as far as political strategery goes.  But it nonetheless begs the question:  If Sanders is a near-perfect distillation of what your party stands for, yet you’re afraid to actually nominate him, what does that say about your party?

It’s easy enough to condemn the entire GOP on the basis of its disgusting infatuation with you-know-who.  But that doesn’t mean Democrats should let themselves off the hook, for they, too, must come to terms with what their team represents in the America of 2016.

The apparent fear within the Democratic ranks is that America is just never going to vote for a self-identified socialist for president.

You know, just like how America will never vote for a black person like Barack Obama.

Or a Catholic like John Kennedy.

Or a populist like Franklin Roosevelt, whose harebrained commie proposal known as “social security” would surely have proved ruinous to our very way of life.  What a great relief that we re-elected Herbert Hoover instead.

The truth is that, under the right circumstances, Americans are prepared to anoint pretty much anybody to the top job in the land.  There was even that time we went with a divorced former movie actor, because, hey, what’s the worst that could happen?

Either Bernie Sanders is right for the times or he’s not.  In the fullness of time, we’ll know for sure.

But what a shame it would be if—long before we reach that point—his own party writes him off as an impossible dream rather than a plausible reality.

Ducking Donald

I hope Donald Trump runs for president forever.

He has proved an indispensable component of the 2016 GOP primary race, and he needs to stick around so his singular contributions can continue.

At this point in Trump’s quixotic quest for the Oval Office, most Americans have come to regard him as the worthless piece of excrement he has always been—the shameless blowhard with a comical lack of self-awareness and the emotional maturity of an infant.

Fair enough, but this assumption all-too-casually overlooks the role he has swiftly and boldly assumed amid the dizzying Republican fracas that has been puttering around the early primary states these last several months.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently proclaimed Trump “exactly what the Republican Party deserves.”  But he is also—for some of the same reasons—the candidate the GOP needs.

In an environment of chaos, Donald Trump is the great clarifier.  He is a big, fat Republican ink blot that allows us to see exactly where everyone stands—how each of his co-candidates truly feels about the issues he is all-too-willing to broach.

Let us begin at the beginning.  In announcing his candidacy for president, Trump (in)famously tarred the entire Mexican immigrant population as murderous, drug-smuggling rapists.  (He then charitably added, “Some, I assume, are good people.”)

OK, then.  This is the kind of mindless xenophobia the GOP has espoused for years, albeit previously in a more restrained and respectful manner.  But now that Trump, lacking the capacity for restraint or respect, has taken the liberty of getting right to the point, we are able to see—more clearly than we otherwise would—how every other candidate views the immigration question writ large.

Generally speaking, when a public figure asserts—without evidence—that the majority of immigrants from a friendly, neighboring country are effectively the scum of the Earth, the correct response is either to ignore that person entirely or to call him out for his ignorance.

After some prodding, a handful of Trump’s competitors did exactly that.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush called the comments “extraordinarily ugly” and Trump “wrong” to make them.  Florida senator Marco Rubio characterized the rant as “offensive,” “inaccurate” and “divisive.”  South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham called it “hurtful and not helpful.”

However, an equal number of declared candidates have opted for Door No. 3:  Tacitly agree with the premise of Trump’s blather.  Texas senator Ted Cruz took the opportunity to croon about how much he admires Trump as a person, as did New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  While Christie responded that he was “not personally offended” by the ramblings in question, Cruz went so far as to “salute” Trump for “focusing on the need to address illegal immigration”—a sentiment echoed almost word-for-word by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

In other words:  Never mind the fact that Mexican immigrants aren’t all dangerous criminals coming to prey on our women.  The point is that illegal immigration is important to talk about, so why quibble over the details?

It’s an appalling way to think, not to mention lazy and dishonest.  It would be like Bernie Sanders asserting that investment bankers were forming gangs and ripping off liquor stores, followed by Hillary Clinton defending him by saying, “The important thing is that he has addressed the need to exercise greater oversight of the big banks.”

But I digress.  The point, in any case, is that Republican primary voters are much more informed about what’s going on in the heads of their ballot choices, and all because Donald Trump said something ridiculous.  Indeed, I know more than a few registered voters for whom the sentence, “I like Donald; he’s a good guy” is all the information they need about whether to ever vote for Chris Christie.

If this long, long pre-primaries period of presidential preening serves any purpose at all, it’s to allow us to cross-examine our commander-in-chief wannabees in a more freewheeling environment than in the tense, over-scripted final leg.  While there are billions of opportunities during this time for anybody to ask any candidate anything—some of which make the evening news or go viral on YouTube—there is an added power to moments (not least the debates) when a party’s banner-carriers are confronted directly and simultaneously by the logic (or illogic) of their core policies.

So long as Trump remains in the race—and why on Earth wouldn’t he?—we will see this happen over and over again.  The man himself is in no immediate danger of suddenly learning basic table manners, and our infantile media are more than happy to indulge him.  Then there’s the matter of the opinion polls, in which he currently ranks in the top two.

Which means the Donald will continue to be the yardstick against which all the other candidates are forced to measure themselves with respect to their party’s identity.  Elections are in large part a test of character, and Trump—a character in his own right—may prove the most grueling test of all.  If his insane ideas about immigration—and, more recently, about what it means to be a war hero—demonstrate real staying power among GOP primary voters, what do the remaining competitors have to gain by condemning such ideas as the lunacy that they are?

Their integrity, for one.  Indeed, many voters have a soft spot for basic human decency in the heat of a high-stakes election.  We’re certainly not gonna get any from Trump, but he may well inspire it in others.  As has been so richly demonstrated in light of his maligning of Senator John McCain, it is not terribly difficult to assume the moral high ground when the maestro of the “Miss Universe” show is the only other man in the room.

His more even-tempered counterparts would do well to mine the anti-Trump vote for all it’s worth, as it is certain to be worth plenty.  After all, a man can only insult and belittle so many of his fellow Americans before there aren’t any left to vote for him.

Here is one Republican billionaire today’s candidates can afford to give a pass.

Mr. Know-It-All

Not to date myself, but I am old enough to remember when President Obama’s arrogance was annoying.  When I worried that his occasional lapses into glibness and condescension would diminish the high office he holds and prove counterproductive to his administrative goals.

Then I listened to his improbable interview with Marc Maron—the stand-up comic who hosts a weekly podcast from his garage—and was reminded how, on second thought, the president’s cheerful elitism is among his most endearing personal qualities.  I’ve never for a moment regretted that he was elected in both 2008 and 2012, and one reason is that he can be so gosh darned snarky.

When the Maron interview aired, the media were so blinded by Obama’s employment of the word “nigger” that they neglected to mention anything else that was discussed—not least the segment on race relations that, if actually listened to, would explain why the use of the N-word was entirely appropriate in this case.  (But that’s another story.)

In fact, what stood out in the podcast for me were the bits about good old politics, and the fact that, rhetorically-speaking, Obama has officially given up treating his Republican adversaries as sane, rational people with whom he could ever forge a common bond.

Nope, in the twilight of his presidency, with no further elections except the one to choose his successor, he has finally accepted that the GOP leadership in Congress is obstinate, dumb and worthless, and he simply doesn’t have the faith or patience to expect that they’ll ever grow up.

There was the moment, for instance, when Maron shifted the subject to climate change and Obama ruefully recalled how James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, recently “proved” that global warming is a hoax by bringing a snowball into the Senate chamber.  Or Obama’s more general assertion, “I believe in reason and I believe in facts,” dryly insinuating that his Republican counterparts do not.

Having followed the news over the past six-odd years, I find both statements incontrovertible, and I think Obama has every right to announce this point loud and clear.  That the GOP has functioned as an ideological stone wall since January 2009 is the plain, simple truth, and it’s the president’s duty to speak the truth from time to time.

Then again, this is all coming from an unabashed partisan of his.  I can imagine that, to those who do not share Obama’s worldview, his self-satisfied demeanor is utterly insufferable.  (Not that any imagination is necessary.)  I am reminded of that week when we found out the administration’s overriding foreign policy philosophy is, “Don’t do stupid shit.”  Clever, yes, but also extremely limited insomuch as the definition of “stupid” is not exactly settled science.

The trouble, you see, is that however appealing it is to implore your adversaries to just listen to reason, framing the argument as a clash between logic and illogic only serves to make you look like a jerk.  It alienates your sparring partners instead of engaging them, and the leader of the free world cannot afford to alienate anybody if he expects to get anything done.  History buffs love to reminisce about the good old days when Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson could effect major legislation through sheer force of will, but both of those men enjoyed huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress—an advantage Obama lacks.

In other words, the present president does not have the luxury to get cocky, or to blow his own trumpet too loudly.  He has to play nice and exercise tact and restraint.  He has to treat his antagonists as smarter than they actually are.  He has to humor them with the prospect that he takes their silly ideas seriously, or at least respects how they think.

However, at this late date, it is clear beyond doubt that he doesn’t and he won’t.  It’s just not in his DNA to suppress his irritation with a Republican Party that values ideological purity over pragmatism, compromise or even basic arithmetic.

Considering all Obama has accomplished in the teeth of that resistance, paired with the basic validity of his public critiques of life on Capitol Hill, I humbly ask:  Are there instances in which arrogance and condescension are not only acceptable, but necessary?

As a rule, arrogance is among the lowest of all human qualities, particularly among public figures.  It is a form of pride—the gravest of the Deadly Sins—inevitably leading to overreach and alienation.  Recent political history suggests as much:  Cockiness did few favors for Mike Bloomberg—a mayor who often portrayed his opponents as not just wrong, but insane—and the one-two punch of Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the GOP primary scuffle speaks for itself (albeit the former more so than the latter).

It just might be that, as so often happens, Obama is the exception to the rule.

Recall that moment in January’s State of the Union when he noted, “I have no more campaigns to run.”  When this yielded a smattering of sarcastic applause, he couldn’t help but add, “I know because I won both of them.”

I can’t imagine any other president getting away with that—let alone trying to—but Obama, through the sheer force of his audacity, somehow made it work.

And what is the magical X factor that allows him to pull this off time and again?  Is it simply the sharpness of his wit?  The twinkle in his eye?  Has his status as America’s First Black President led us to subconsciously give him a pass on certain points of etiquette that—let’s face it— aren’t all that important in the first place?

Or maybe it’s just that, when you pay close attention to precisely what he is arrogant about, you realize that it’s not arrogance at all.  As a certain New Jersey governor would put it, he is simply telling it like it is.

Christie on the Cross

And the Oscar for best performance by a governor in a leading role goes to….

Or is that “supporting role”?

I must say, I did not intend to view all 108 minutes of Chris Christie’s press conference Thursday, at which the New Jersey governor denied any involvement in the plot to gridlock traffic on the George Washington Bridge for four days in September as a form of petty political payback.

But there is just something about the Garden State’s chief executive that commands one’s attention in a way that few other public officials do.  In this case, it was the sort of attention one might otherwise reserve for a high-speed car chase or a film by Paul Thomas Anderson—the fascination that comes from a pure, audacious, jaw-dropping spectacle.

The kerfuffle in question entails the revelation that a top Christie aide conspired with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close precious access lanes to the George Washington Bridge—the most-traveled span in the world—for no reason except to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey—the city on the bridge’s western end—for the crime of not endorsing Christie’s bid for re-election last year.

Facing the obvious questions—What did the governor know and when did he know it?—Christie’s court proved to be one giant mea non culpa:  An exhaustive insistence that Christie himself had nothing to do with this dastardly scheme, complete with a passionate and thorough accounting of how and why this was the case.  (For one thing, Christie repeatedly claimed, he never sought the mayor’s endorsement in the first place.)

As supposedly “out of character” as the governor was, substituting his usual bluster with contrition and introspection, what was most remarkable about the whole episode recalls the signature of the Christie we know and (sometimes) love:  His knack for saying exactly what he thinks and leaving no doubt whatever as to precisely what he means.

Yes, by flatly denying involvement in a flagrant act of government mischief, Christie traced over the footsteps of every public official who has ever been so accused.  With no smoking gun to prove his culpability, what other choice did he have?

The difference, then, is one of degree.

In point of fact, Christie did not mimic the usual routine of vagaries and lawyerly evasions that might get him off the hook in some future legal showdown.  There was no “I do not recall” or “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

On the disputes that matter most—Did he know the true motive behind the lane closings?  Was he aware that some of his top deputies are callous, vengeful pukes?  Was the whole thing his idea?—he offered his side of the story in the most certain possible terms.  He has established a narrative of innocence and he’s sticking with it to the bitter end.

What this means—as we will learn soon enough—is that either he is telling the truth, or he is lying in the most spectacular and self-destructive possible way.

By denying allegations of corruption in such an absolute, “read my lips” manner, Christie has left himself no feasible trap door through which to drop, should his pleas of non-involvement be proved false.  Were evidence of his own handiwork on the bridge caper to come to light—as he must assume it would, if such evidence existed—his status as a serious statewide (and potentially national) leader would vaporize on contact.

Accordingly, if Christie harbors even half the ambition for higher office that everyone assumes, and if he possesses any semblance of political self-preservation, his performance at Thursday’s press conference suggests he is either not guilty of all charges, irretrievably deluded, or simply the dumbest man on planet Earth.

In any case, “performance” is the correct term for the ridiculousness to which curious onlookers were treated last week, for better or for worse.  By proclaiming a lack of culpability for a bizarre bridge debacle until his voice grew hoarse and reporters’ quills ran dry, Chris Christie reaffirmed his status as America’s most singularly watchable chief executive, assuredly leading many to question whether it will become that much more tempting to ultimately look away.

Junk Food

I doubt that I will ever actually read Double Down, the new chronicle of the 2012 presidential race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

The book, released last week, has accrued enormous press coverage in recent days, swiftly becoming the “official” account of the proverbial horse race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, thanks to a peanut gallery of firsthand accountants who dish on the personalities involved in a presidential election that, if not our country’s most exciting, was nonetheless (as the joke goes) certainly the most recent.

Political junkie that I am, I have naturally skimmed the excerpts from the tome published in the New York Times and TIME and the various analyses that have followed about the meaning of the 2012 race in the context of U.S. history and, of course, the eventual campaign of 2016.

But that is as far as I wish to go.

I do not require every last detail about what Obama and Romney were doing and thinking at every moment of their contest for the Oval Office.

I did not need to know—as I now do—that Romney’s vice presidential vetting committee codenamed their operation “Goldfish” and referred to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as “Pufferfish” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as “Pescado.”

Nor, frankly, do I much care about the minutiae of the Obama administration’s “poll testing” about whether to replace Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton.  For Pete’s sake, any self-respecting incumbent is going to explore every available avenue for success, and Obama is no different.  There is nothing especially groundbreaking about this so-called scoop, and none of these disclosures means much in the broad sweep of history.

Yet I marinate in this piffle all the same, and will probably continue so long as it keeps popping up on my news feed.

I don’t want to, but I do.  I just can’t help myself.  I’m a junkie, and this is my junk food.

Mind you, political junk food should not be confused with political guilty pleasures.  There is a distinction between the two that, while narrow, is worth pointing out.

A guilty pleasure is something that is dismissed in polite society as vulgar and trivial, but might nonetheless contain some redeeming value.  Take, for instance, my occasional pastime of eating an entire jar of peanut butter with a spoon at 2 o’clock in the morning:  No, it’s not something I could get away with in public, but hey, think of all the protein!

Per contra, junk food is, well, junk.  It’s pure sugar and fat, it does nothing for you in the long run, you consume it in a moment of weakness and feel disgusted with yourself a few minutes later.  Rather than peanut butter, picture killing a whole jar of Nutella.  (You know who you are.)

So how might we differentiate these two concepts in the worlds of government and politics?

I am extremely tempted to argue that the entire experience of following a political campaign constitutes a guilty pleasure, with most of its constituent parts nothing but pure junk—sparkly distractions yielding heat but no light.  The boring legislative sausage-making that (sometimes) occurs between elections—that’s the part that matters.

Halperin and Heilemann have defended Double Down against the inevitable charges of gossip-mongering by asserting that all of its goodies were subject to rigorous cross-checking, and that any assertions that could not be verified, no matter how titillating, remained on the cutting room floor.  In short, they have committed journalism, not tabloid hackery.

Here’s a thought:  They have actually committed both simultaneously, and there’s your problem.  In today’s environment, where personality not only trumps substance but is considered substantive itself, any stray piece of dirt about a political figure, no matter how inconsequential, is considered axiomatically newsworthy, provided that it is obtained in a journalistically valid manner.

My plea to the peddlers of this troubling tendency:  Knock it off.

Don’t elevate the status of disposable schoolyard chatter into the realm of respectability.  Don’t conflate valuable information with pure muck.  Learn to discriminate between the two, for many of your readers cannot, but they jolly well should.

By no means do I advocate an end to all frivolity in political reporting, just as I wouldn’t dream of purging the supermarket shelves of all candy and chocolate.  Such trifles will always have a place in our society—namely, to provide a mental release from the weight of the serious business of life.

All I ask is that we recognize our depraved desserts for what they are, and not pretend they are wholesome and nutritious.

We can allow ourselves the occasional indulgence, but let’s not make every day Halloween.